Home » Winnebago Once Sold A Sleek 22 MPG Camper With A Tiny Engine

Winnebago Once Sold A Sleek 22 MPG Camper With A Tiny Engine

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For many car enthusiasts, the thought of driving a motorhome doesn’t elicit excitement. Motorhomes are often bulky with driving dynamics comparable to a U-Haul box truck and with the fuel economy to match. In the 1980s, when America was stressing about emissions and fuel economy, Winnebago introduced the LeSharo, a Renault Trafic van with a camper grafted onto the back. With it, Winnebago touted car-like handling and 22 mpg, frugal for something that you could live in. Let’s check it out!

If you’ve had any worries about the state of David Tracy since he arrived in California, you should know that he’s still the man you love. It seems like every day, David will drop some weird car for sale that he found on Facebook. Many of these vehicles have been old campers that he wants to buy, including a vintage Class C motorhome bolted to the cab of a Ford F-Series truck. That poor thing was in a sorry state with all kinds of water damage, which was a bit weird given its location in Arizona. One of David’s finds caught my eye and it was this worn, but still great Winnebago LeSharo. Bask in its weathered glory:

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Facebook Seller

Now, I’ve seen these campers for sale here and there and there. Near me, there’s a collection of old RVs just sitting around on flat tires and I’m sure three of them are LeSharos. Yet, I never put too much thought into them other than “funky design.” Thanks to David’s curiosity, I’ve found another piece of oddball RV history.

Back To The Malaise Era

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This journey takes us back to the 1980s. For car enthusiasts, this era is known as the Malaise Era. During this period, American car design and performance arguably took a backseat to the effects of oil crises, efforts to reduce tailpipe emissions, and increasing fuel economy. Malaise Era cars looked like a couple of refrigerator boxes stacked on top of each other and it was also a time when V8s struggled to make the kinds of power a four-cylinder could easily make today.

While all of this was happening with cars, motorhome manufacturers battled lower industry sales and high gas prices by experimenting with methods to achieve high fuel economy. In 1986, the Vixen Motor Company released its Vixen 21 TD, a motorhome that not only got good fuel economy but was designed to be the “driver’s motorhome.” Vixen did it by pairing a low-slung motorhome body with a low roof with a 2.4-liter inline-six turbodiesel sourced from BMW. The result was an expensive coach that got 30 mpg or could go 108.9 mph but was hard for tall people to stand up in while it went down the road.

Vixen Motor Company

This was also the era when Champion Home Builders decided to tackle the issue of motorhomes getting too tall and ungainly by building the Ultrastar. That motorhome was a coach that was still long but rode closer to the ground and featured better road manners than the typical Class A fare.

Over at Winnebago, the company decided to tackle the issues of the era by making a motorhome that was as easy to drive as a car, wasn’t much larger than a van, and got high fuel economy. Indeed, this sounds like a similar concept as the Vixen, but Winnebago did it earlier and in some regards, perhaps even better.

An American Motorhome With French Power

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Winnebago’s exact reasoning isn’t explained, but the camper manufacturer looked to Europe for the bones to build the LeSharo on. Over there, Winnebago found the first generation Renault Trafic van. These vans featured a low floor thanks to their diesel front-wheel-drive powertrain. Winnebago struck a deal with Renault, allowing the former to create a different kind of motorhome. Renault shipped Trafic cabs, drivetrains, and rear axles to America, where Winnebago would build them out into the LeSharo motorhome. The first LeSharos started hitting the road in 1983 and Winnebago marketed them as something revolutionary:

Winnebago wasn’t far off; the LeSharo had a ton of good ideas going for it. By choosing the Trafic as a donor vehicle, the Winnebago LeSharo enjoyed a low and largely flat floor that sat just 10 inches above the ground. This is great for people who don’t quite have the mobility to climb stairs into a coach. It was also great for keeping the center of gravity low, which helped Winnebago’s objective to build a motorhome that drives like a car. The only places the floor steps up are in the cab and the dinette.

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A Winnebago LeSharo was also a compact camper. The first-generation LeSharo was just 19 feet, 7 inches long, which makes it about the size of today’s camper vans. And with a gross vehicle weight rating of 5,770 pounds, it maxed out with a weight less than some of the trucks that you could buy today. Winnebago didn’t skimp out on quality in keeping the weight low, either. LeSharos have steel unibodies, fiberglass end caps, and aluminum is used in the roof.

In Winnebago’s brochures, the company brags about hanging its motorhomes from a crane and dropping them to evaluate structural integrity. It also taunts its competitors by talking about its optional 5 year/50,000-mile protection plan. A caption next to a picture of a motorhome in a repair shop reads “Most Manufacturers Don’t Offer 5 Year/50,000 Mile Protection. Maybe They Know Something You Don’t.”

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If that’s not a corporate sick burn then I don’t know what is!

Brochs

It gets even better from there. The first Winnebago LeSharos came with a 2.068-liter diesel four-cylinder borrowed from the Trafic. I love how oddly specific the brochure gets about the engine’s displacement. This engine was also used in the Renault Espace and Fuego. In its brochure, Winnebago says that a LeSharo prototype was driven 3,148 miles by the United States Auto Club. These miles weren’t in a lab, but on a road, and the prototype camper returned 24.11 mpg averaging over 50 mph for the trip. The prototype camper didn’t have a sink or kitchen and after adding those in, Winnebago said that the production version scored 22 mpg all while driving like a car.

Winnebago was so proud of the fact that the LeSharo drove like a car that in later brochures, the company said that you could use the LeSharo to go to the grocery store like your family car, to the lake like a van, and to the Grand Canyon like a motorhome. The innovations continued inside as well.

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The 20 feet of space offered by the LeSharo or by a camper van doesn’t normally lend to a ton of room. Even a high-end Airstream Class B van can feel cramped. One trick feature was the bathroom. Remove a floor panel and open some latches, then the bathroom unit slides out from the camper’s wall. In it, you’ll find a marine toilet and a shower complete with a door for privacy. The bathroom does it using a sink that folds into the wall. Plus, the towel bar and shelves are molded into the door.

Winnebago built the LeSharo to have all of the features of a big motorhome, just in a smaller package. So, inside your LeSharo you got amenities like a galley kitchen, heated water, a house battery, heating, and holding tanks. The coach carried 22 gallons of fresh water and 13 gallons for waste.

Low And Very Slow

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The LeSharo was built between 1983 and 1992 with the coach getting upgrades along the way. In 1987, the LeSharo got a second generation (above) where it got a foot longer and about a thousand pounds heavier. The interior got a cozy look and the coach also scored an air-conditioner. No matter the generation of LeSharo, you did get something that you didn’t get with a Vixen.

The interior height in these was 6 feet. Not ideal for tall people, but better than the 5.4 feet offered by a Vixen with a closed roof. At 5 feet, 6 inches tall, my head would definitely rub the roof of a Vixen unless the roof was popped.

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Leshinto

Now, there’s a rather large elephant in the room. You’ve probably noticed that I skipped over the specs of the powertrain. Well, things don’t look great. The first-generation LeSharo’s 2.068-liter diesel was advertised as making 66 HP and 94 lb-ft torque. That’s less power than a Smart Fortwo, but nearly three times the weight. According to LeSharo owners, these coaches could muster 70 mph if you keep your foot to the floor for long enough.

Winnebago tried to rectify speed concerns with the addition of a Garrett T04 turbocharger in 1984. This kicked power up to 75 HP. A year later, a 2.2-liter gas engine would become an option and it would further bump the power up to 100 horses. When the second-generation LeSharo launched in 1987, this became the only engine and the LeSharo would use it until it was discontinued after 1992. LeSharo owners note that top speed is at best around 80 mph and hills will slow it down. Making matters worse were the transmission choices. You could fit your LeSharo with a four- or five-speed manual or a three-speed automatic.

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Some owners fix the LeSharo’s speed problems by dropping in more powerful engines. I’ve seen the legendary Buick 3800 or Chrysler minivan engines suggested as replacement engines for these!

Enthusiasts estimate that 15,000 LeSharos were built over two generations. The camper also saw itself rebadged as the Itasca Phasar and Winnebago also sold a Renault Trafic-based conversion van called the Centuri. Winnebago would later try the concept again from 1995 to 2005 with the Rialta. That camper had a similar design brief as the LeSharo, but was built on the bones of the Volkswagen EuroVan with a VR6 engine, making it better suited for American highways.

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If you’re looking for a vintage motorhome, it seems like a LeSharo is a decent option. You get rather distinctive looks and the amenities of a larger coach, but with van proportions. Just don’t expect to get where you’re going very fast.

(Photos: Winnebago, unless otherwise noted.)

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Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
1 year ago

The Renault Trafic is a useable and good looking van. A bit like a larger Espace.
2.1 litre diesel with some good torque should be quite enough for everyone.
But I guess it IS possible to ruin it with an automatic transmission and a lot of heavy furniture.. I would much rather like one of those than the ugly and thirsty (and probably also quite slow) big old classic Winnebagos. Man, I hate those beasts.

And I really don’t understand how speed should be a problem? If anything in this world is slow it’s an old air cooled Volkswagen. And thousands – or even millions(?) – were sold of them is the US over many years.
Speed should be even less a problem in an RV, where you have your food and your bed with you at all times. So just pull over and make a sandwich or take a nap, what’s the problem? Leave an hour earlier if you absolutely have to be there at a specific time.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jakob K's Garage
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
Do You Have a Moment To Talk About Renaults?
1 year ago

A few years ago I saw one of those Habsburg chin LeSharos here in Portugal, and knowing exactly what it was, I was equal parts excited and puzzled. I can’t remember what country it was from, but the idea alone that one of these somehow made it to Europe, where there RV-converted Trafics are very common, was just so mind-blowing. I can’t imagine how much it must’ve cost to register.

Bracq P
Bracq P
1 year ago

Can someone please explain to me why the engine is considered not powerful enough. Wasn’t 55mp/H the legal limit then and pretty much the lowest worldwide?

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
1 year ago
Reply to  Bracq P

Because 55 up a hill, or around a curve, or in traffic ain’t happening at that power-to-weight ratio. Many an RV, box truck, etc. over the years could be called a “dragonfly” – draggin’ uphill, flyin’ downhill.

Lokki
Lokki
1 year ago
Reply to  Bracq P

I am guessing that you have never been to the United States, or at least not to Texas, Oklahoma, Nevada, Wyoming or similar such wide open western states.

There’s an old Chinese saying that comes to mind:

“The Emperor can make any laws he chooses, but he is not here to enforce them”

Peter Thompson
Peter Thompson
1 year ago

I have just zero interest in motorhome camping, or going on road trips in a motorhome, or anything like that.
And yet…I’d still love to have one of these or a Vixen.

Toyec
Toyec
1 year ago

I just have two anecdotes to add :
1/ The Fuego Turbo-Diesel, which used that same engine, was apparently the fastest mass-produced Diesel car IN THE WORLD when launched, whith a staggering… (don’t laugh)… 175 km/h !
2/Renault sold the first-gen Trafic rights and tools to Tata, and it’s still sold in India ! So one could do a modern LeSharo again
https://www.winger-tatamotors.com/

R Smith
R Smith
1 year ago

I remember Motorweek having one for either a regular and/or long-term road test. They loved it. I wanted one (as well as a Vixen).

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
1 year ago

I occasionally see one of these street parked but never driving. Also a couple of VW based Rialtas. The idea is sound and Europe was full of Renault and Fiat van based campers but over here you need more power. The Promaster (nee Fiat Ducato) based campers are a modern take with more usable power

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
1 year ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

I drove a Sprinter van for a job a decade ago, and my employer replaced both our aging Sprinters with ProMasters. It is without question my least favorite vehicle I have ever driven. The “manumatic” transmission was always searching for the right gear, even in manual mode. Then the rear door latch gave out in three months – those are kind of important for a delivery van.

If you use a Sprinter for work, and you are thinking about replacing it with a Fiat ProBastard, spend the money on a frame-off restoration of the Sprinter instead. You’ll be glad you did.

If I were in the market for a new RV, I would not even shop one based on this terrible design.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
1 year ago

The engine always seemed way underpowered for hauling itself around.

Bqpqfb
Bqpqfb
1 year ago

I had the 1983 Renault 18i Sportwagon with the 2.2 gas engine and a five speed – and there was nothing sporty about it at all. Even pulling only 2478 lbs, that engine was nearly useless. Let alone the chronic electrical problems associated with that car…

Sklooner
Sklooner
1 year ago

I have driven one with the gas engine, a slug is a good description, know an RV tech who swapped in a Chrysler V6 as well as installed a couple of slides. Tried to buy one a few years ago when you could pick them up for almost nothing but lost my storage space.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
1 year ago

I looked into these a few years ago. The problem is the engine and drivetrain are complete turds, and so underpowered that normal driving overstresses them and they blow up. In fact, if you do a basic search for Lesharros, you will find most of them don’t drive and are being sold as projects.

If you’re comfortable taking on an engine swap, I could see them being an attractive option. A small diesel engine with TORQUE to push that brick down the highway would probably be pretty great.

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
1 year ago
Reply to  ADDvanced

Hell, I wonder about ripping the 3.0 VTEC out of my Accord beater and shoving it in there. Or go full Murca with an LS4.

Lincoln Clown CaR
Lincoln Clown CaR
1 year ago

This journey takes us back to the 1980s. For car enthusiasts, this era is known as the Malaise Era.

Objection! Cars in the 80s were rad. The 70s was malaise. Maybe up to 1981 if I’m being generous.

ADDvanced
ADDvanced
1 year ago

Agreed. Mid 80s japanese cars were pretty fantastic to drive, but most just turned to dust since they rust so badly.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
1 year ago

Agreed! “Malaise” means an attitude of not caring, and by the 80’s, the Big Three were starting to care again. It may have taken awhile, but the cars of the mid-to-late 80’s were definitely better quality than those of the late 70’s. It just takes awhile to get new cars designed. 400 c.i. V8’s making less than 200 HP happened in the post-OPEC oil crisis 70’s.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 year ago

Murilee Martin is the one who created the term “Malaise Era”, and he specifically defined it as starting with the oil shortage in 1973 and ending in 1983, when automakers started to get a better handle on emissions controls and power ratings and driveability started gradually improving, and the economy also started to stabilize and improve after several years of stagnation

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
1 year ago
Reply to  Ranwhenparked

I can generally agree with that definition, particularly if we are talking about availability of the cars themselves. However, I’d argue the companies were coming out of the malaise earlier than that. Ford debuted the Mustang on the Fox chassis in 79 (sure, it took a few more years to get the 5.0 up to snuff), and Chevy had to be working on the C4 Vette in the late 70’s to debut it for the ’84 model year.

Joe The Drummer
Joe The Drummer
1 year ago

I have described the 70s as “engines from the 60s trying to meet the emissions requirements of the 80s.”

VolksWinkle
VolksWinkle
1 year ago

As a grouchy GenX’r I was coming to say this. No judgement on you Mercedes love your content! You had to be there!

Matt Sexton
Matt Sexton
1 year ago

A few decades ago I had a customer who had one of these, and he would always come to me for parts since I would dig a little harder than average. It was a huge pain in the ass, because even in the early 90’s Renault parts weren’t exactly easy to come by in the States. He couldn’t seem to understand why I didn’t have what he needed right on the shelf.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
1 year ago

I want to know if anyone ever called Winnebago out and dailied one of these?

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 year ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

When I was in elementary school, I took violin lessons from a college kid who came from a large family (he had 5 younger siblings) and his parents did indeed use a LeSharo or the Itasca version as a family car, street parked it in front of their house, too. But that was considered extremely weird, even by themselves, so I doubt many other people did the same

Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson
1 year ago

The LeSharo was an early MotorWeek review subject! https://youtu.be/2KaszrvqK4M

Professor Chorls
Professor Chorls
1 year ago

I’ve thought about getting one of these and back-converting it to a Renault Trafic.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
1 year ago

But fast enough so no f-ing fly problems? Damn flies damnit. Agggrrrh.

Drew
Drew
1 year ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

I’m not sure whether you’re having insect or zipper problems, but I hope it gets better.

JTilla
JTilla
1 year ago

This seems like a good idea. I never could understand why motorhomes are so damn tall.

Rabob Rabob
Rabob Rabob
1 year ago
Reply to  JTilla

Van/truck based ones have a driveshaft you have to engineer around to make a flat floor inside.

Ben
Ben
1 year ago
Reply to  JTilla

Drivetrain, plumbing, and headroom. Also storage in the big class A’s. Add those together (they can’t overlap too much) and you end up with a tall vehicle. Anything short has almost certainly compromised on headroom, as these did. To most people, even those who can stand up in a 5’6″ camper, a taller ceiling makes it feel much more spacious even if the rest of the interior layout is identical.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
1 year ago

I see this more of a day tripper vs camper. Unless you like fights that lead to divorce.

Jason Hinton
Jason Hinton
11 months ago
Reply to  Arrest-me Red

My wife and I travel and camp for a week at a time in a converted Astro van.

DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
DubblewhopperInDubblejeopardy
1 year ago

Are those headlights from a Buick? And in some pictures I see Chrysler headlights. Odd looking to say the least.

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
1 year ago

Yes – they’re from an X-body Skylark.

Nlpnt
Nlpnt
1 year ago

Acktshually, the headlights themselves are standardized sealed-beams. But yes, the bezels and turn signals on the early models were from the 1980-81 Skylark. And the facelifted version has them in deep “sugar scoops” very reminiscent of the 1979-83 Dodge Omni 024/Charger and its’ Plymouth variants.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
1 year ago

And I think the front side marker lights on the “facelift” are from an early Fox-body Mustang?

Dennis Birtcher
Dennis Birtcher
1 year ago

Honestly, the entire front clip is giving me early Dodge Rampage vibes.

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